Set against the backdrop of recent events in the South China Sea, the United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivered the keynote address to kick off the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue, a major security conference hosted by International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore. Carter's speech on 30 May emphasised the need for regional security architecture and shared prosperity, reinforcing to the policymakers of the region that America remains committed to "Rebalance to Asia-Pacific".
"Reflected in Secretary Carter's travel itinerary (his visits to Hawaii, Singapore, Vietnam and India) and speech is an unfolding of America's action-oriented engagement with the Asia-Pacific."
Reflected in Secretary Carter's travel itinerary (his visits to Hawaii, Singapore, Vietnam and India) and speech is an unfolding of America's action-oriented engagement with the Asia-Pacific. Carter himself mentioned that his visits are a reminder of the regional demand for persistent American attention to the Asia-Pacific. Simultaneously, Carter's choice of stops is indicative of demonstrable American efforts in providing substance to the depth of its long -standing alliances and partnerships in the region. In this context, the Defense Secretary's visit to Vietnam offers an example of America's needs to diversify its partnership with countries to address the challenges of a complex security environment.
There is a shift in rhetoric from former Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's statement that the US has been "clear and consistent" on not taking positions on "competing territorial claims" to Carter's clear insistence on American action in the event of assertive activities of one country.
This is reflected in the following statement from the current Defense Secretary:
"The United States encourages ASEAN and China to conclude a Code of Conduct this year. And America will support the right of claimants to pursue international legal arbitration and other peaceful means to resolve these disputes, just as we will oppose coercive tactics."
In the face of Chinese military expansion in the contested waters of the South China Sea, Carter's speeches so far have underlined the need for a strong regional security architecture in Southeast Asia that promotes transparency, builds trust and encourages peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.
Four major themes emerge from Carter's speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue: an enduring American commitment to shared peace and prosperity; the need to promote Asia Pacific security architecture; efforts to enhance regional cooperation and a revival of America's diplomacy in the region.
A solid commitment to these broad ideas was substantiated by the presence of senior Republican senators such as John McCain, Joni Ernst, Cory Gardner and Dan Sullivan.
An analysis of the major ideas from Carter's speech presents a positive reminder that the US will continue to play a role influencing and shaping the region.
An enduring commitment to shared peace and prosperity
The Asia-Pacific region is arguably the most economically dynamic region in the world, and for sustaining the economic miracle that this region has witnessed, it is important to ensure peaceful political conditions conducive to its economic health. Secretary Carter mentioned that millions have been lifted out of poverty into the middle class and values of democracy and freedom have spread successfully through the region. As sustained growth in the region would form a win-win template, the US is committed to intensifying further economic interaction spurred by America's own economic revival.
"Carter's speech also reflected America's desire to deepen partnership with India, modernising India's defence and naval capabilities and simultaneously, strengthening relations with Vietnam."
Need for Asia-Pacific security architecture
Post World War II, the US helped create and sustain stability in Asia-Pacific through the existing framework of bilateral alliances -- the "hub and spoke" system. While the US bilateral alliance architecture forms an integral component of security guarantees establishing the status quo, increasingly this model of bilateral alliance is tested in the backdrop of a geo-economic flux. A set of competing, almost parallel security visions is offered by China.
In May 2014, during the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping advocated a new security vision for Asia which emphasised that the Asians should themselves be involved in building security architecture, thereby, preventing the interference of global players outside the region.
Owing to the evolving realities of this region, Secretary Carter put emphasis on the urgent need for security architecture and called for strengthening of regional institutions. It is interesting to note Carter's encouragement to ASEAN and China to conclude a Code of Conduct (COC) agreement. The Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea document stating the maintenance of stability in the South China Sea is till date the only mutually agreed document signed between China and ASEAN for the formation of a Code of Conduct.
Enhancing regional cooperation
Aside from lubricating existing regional frameworks, Carter's speech also reflected America's desire to deepen partnership with India, modernising India's defence and naval capabilities and simultaneously, strengthening relations with Vietnam. In New Delhi, Secretary Carter and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar are expected to renew the Defence Framework Agreement for another 10 years moving towards a robust partnership on a gamut of issues ranging from maritime security to aircraft carrier and jet engine technology cooperation.
"The growing US-Vietnam bilateral relationship also compliments India's burgeoning relations with Vietnam, with the US encouraging India to play a more proactive role in the region."
America's strategic outreach to Vietnam is another equally important development moving away from the trappings of cold war inheritance to realistic policy alignment of 21st century. In order to elevate bilateral cooperation, during March 2015, Tran Dai Quang, Vietnam's Minister of Public Security, held bilateral meetings with senior US officials in Washington. Comprehensive partnership between the two countries received a fillip with Secretary Carter and Defense Minister General Thanh signing the Vision Statement for bilateral defence relationship. Response to Chinese unilateral activities in the disputed islands of the South China Sea underpins laying the groundwork for the next 20 years of US-Vietnam's defence relationship. The growing US-Vietnam bilateral relationship also compliments India's burgeoning relations with Vietnam, with the US encouraging India to play a more proactive role in the region.
Renewed diplomacy paving a path for revitalised engagement
As Secretary Carter underscored America's continued commitment to protect the freedom of navigation and overflight to ensure security, he stressed that the US will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. By stating the importance of observing international law, he called for an immediate halt to land reclamation by all claimants. In the context of the launch of a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative he mentioned that the US Congress had already undertaken steps to contribute up to $425 million for maritime capacity building efforts. Without divulging the specifics of the project, Secretary Carter's speech indicated the coming of age of a bolder South China Sea and Pivot to Asia policy.
Secretary Carter's speech strikes a balance between cooperation and strong opposition of the militarisation of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. The challenge of international laws by countries would create instability in the region and hence, it is in the best interest of all the actors in the South China Sea to make concerted efforts to diffuse escalation of tension. As consequences of an armed conflict in the region would be highly detrimental to peace and growth, developing institutional mechanisms for peaceful resolution of conflict is in the best interests of the region. This is one abiding truth that has emerged from Secretary Carter's articulation of America's refocus on the Asia-Pacific and its long-term efforts to sustain the status-quo.